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Leaders for Education Series - Navanethem Pillay

Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, wants to be the "the champion of human rights in every part of the world". A South African national, she was the first woman to start a law practice in her home province despite the barriers posed by the apartheid regime. Ms. Pillay talks to us about her experience, the right to education and gender equality.

In your experience defending and advocating for human rights, what does the “Right to an Education” mean to you? 

In principle and law, education is universally established as a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, in practice, it is still not available to every child everywhere. It is my personal experience as a child and young adult, as much as in my career in human rights, which leads me to state unequivocally that education is both a human right in itself, as well as an indispensable instrument for achieving many other rights, whether civil, cultural, economic, political, or social.  Education must be available and accessible to all without discrimination based on sex, age, ethnic origin, social status, nationality, disability, or illness, including HIV/AIDS.  Again, this is generally agreed, but not always practised. Applying human rights standards and principles to education helps us to overcome or remove the barriers that cause exclusion and discriminatory practices.

You had to overcome institutionalized prejudice and many obstacles in your career. Which elements in your education gave you the tools and the inspiration to achieve your professional goals?

In a way it was a virtuous circle: I received a lot of encouragement from my family as a child, and also from inspiring teachers at various key points. As a result, when I was sixteen, I was in a position to write an essay which dealt with the role of South African women in educating children on human rights.  When the essay was published, my community raised funds in order to send this promising, but impoverished, young woman to university.  Despite their efforts and good will, I almost didn't make it as a lawyer, because when I entered university during the apartheid regime, everything and everyone was segregated.  The registrar actually discouraged me from becoming a lawyer.  He argued that I could not expect white secretaries to take instructions from a person of my background. So, because of the encouragement I received on the one hand, and the obstacles I kept facing on the other – either because of my colour, gender, or poor background – I became pretty determined. And, by then, I had received enough education to make the most of that determination. I had learned from an early age that there was injustice, but I also learned quite early that, with perseverance, injustice could be overcome.

What message would you like send to policy makers & governments about education?

My main message would be: invest more than you think you can afford in education, and make sure your money is well spent. Invest not just in infrastructure, but in smaller class sizes, in scholarships, in improved teacher-training, in ensuring that no social groups are excluded from good education by accident or by design. Serious investment in education will inevitably produce a handsome dividend for society at large.
Article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights outlines the responsibilities of States in relation to primary, secondary and higher education as well as fundamental education. And, of course, the rights and benefits must be – and often aren’t – applied equally to both boys and girls.

The global community failed to achieve the third Millennium Development Goal of having an equal proportion of boys and girls in school by 2005. That was a serious failure.

People belonging to ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities and indigenous groups, as well as disabled people, are often poorly integrated into national education systems.  Their levels of access to adequate education services are well below national averages. Minorities and indigenous peoples all over the world face serious barriers in accessing education equally, including a lack of mother-tongue education; poor provision of schools and qualified teachers in the regions where they live; prohibitive costs of school fees that disproportionately affect them as the poorest groups; and curricula that do not reflect community priorities for learning, as well as discrimination by teachers and other pupils.  Their problems are often compounded if they are female.

Tackling these issues, produces benefits for society at large as well as for the concerned groups and individuals: respect for diversity fosters social cohesion and accommodation of different views and experiences, thereby preventing communal strife.

In your experience, what happens to a girl or boy who does not receive an education?

According to UNESCO, more than 70 million children and almost 800 million adults are the victims of such exclusion.  That means a colossal number of people whose opportunities are severely curtailed. For many such people, their entire life is a struggle against abject poverty, with no easy way out. Their health is affected, and the prospects of their children and grand-children risk being similarly grim. With less enlightened parents, I could easily have been one of them.

Speaking from your professional experience, does education help promote gender equality?

Clearly. It is no coincidence that the significant advances in gender equality in many countries over the course of the 20th century went hand in hand with the recognition, at the international level, of the right to education for all. It has been conclusively, scientifically, statistically proven that investing in girls’ education is not only a way to improve their human rights, but also one of the most effective approaches to achieve equality, and thus reduce poverty, and contribute to the welfare and betterment of whole communities and nations. And, of course, none of this is possible unless men are also educated to the point where they realize the intellectual and economic potential of their sisters, daughters and female colleagues matches their own.

Is there anything else about education and your work that you’d like to add?

Yes. I would like to add that education is not simply a matter of attending school and having textbooks, or learning by rote. The education of children must also aim to develop their personality and talents, cultural identity, language and values. The need to be taught to think big, to realize that – whatever society they belong to – they can achieve. The best interests of the student must be the primary consideration. I would never have risen to become UN High Commissioner for Human Rights if my parents, key members of my community, and some of my teachers had not taken my best interests when I was a child as their driving principle.

Click here for Navanethem Pillay's biography.

Click here for more on the upcoming E4 - Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality Conference


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Click here  to read the biography of Navanethem Pillay

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E4 - Engendering Empowerment: Education and Equality Conference